I can actually think of ten simple ways to improve turfgrass conditions -- these are only the first five ways, and I will write more later about another five ways to improve grass. The article I wrote on this topic has been published in Golf Business Asia and can be downloaded here. So what do I think are the first five ways to improve turfgrass conditions?
1. Set course maintenance standards. If we have a certain level of grass quality, and want to reach an improved level of playability or appearance, we need to define what that standard is and what work must be implemented in order to achieve the desired quality level. For more details, an article I wrote on this topic can be downloaded here in English and downloaded here in Chinese (中文). A simple example is grass quality and tolerance of weeds in the fairways. If there is no standard for this, than at what weed threshold are the fairways acceptable, or unacceptable? When I was a golf course superintendent I was not a big fan of these types of standards, thinking them extraneous, but I now think that written standards, no matter how simple, are the starting point for any turfgrass management (or turfgrass improvement) program.
2. Choose the right grass. I cannot overemphasize this enough. There are certain grasses that are well-adapted to certain growing conditions and that can be managed to provide the desired playing surface. There are other grasses that are less well-adapted to your growing conditions and that require a tremendous amount of maintenance in order to produce the desired playing surface. Or perhaps you struggle to achieve the type of playing surface that you want. Would a different species of grass or an improved variety of the one you are currently growing help to improve turfgrass conditions? It seems like a lot of wasted resources to manage grass that is not well-adapted to your site. For more information about this, you can search for the information you are looking for. There are some excellent turfgrass specific information resources available online, and I wrote about the best of them (in English) and you can also download the article about information resources in Chinese (中文). Also, you may wish to read an article I wrote for Golf Business Asia about managing and choosing warm-season grasses. And you can see a selection of photos of different warm-season grasses, along with some advantages and disadvantages of each, at this photo gallery.
3. Fertilize the right amount. This is critical for improving the grass. If I want to be healthier, one of the first things the doctor will tell me to do is to evaluate my diet, right? And I should eat a balanced diet with the right amount of fruits and vegetables and vitamins and minerals and so on. Well, grass is the same way, except it is a lot simpler. With grasses, we can conduct a routine soil nutrient analysis (a laboratory test of the soil's chemical properties) to determine how much of the essential plant nutrients are present in the soil, and how much should be added as fertilizer. In many soils, there is already enough phosphorus to meet the needs of the grass, and in some cases there is enough potassium as well. If there is not enough, then we simply add more. The key element to get right in the fertilization program is nitrogen. This is like me, if I am on a diet, being concerned about how many calories I eat every day. Eating more calories than I burn each day will make me gain weight, while burning more calories than I eat results in me losing weight. If the grass gets too much nitrogen it will grow too quickly, and if the grass doesn't have enough nitrogen it will become yellow and grow too slowly. The goal is to control the growth rate of the grass to create the desired improvement to turfgrass conditions by applying exactly the right amount of nitrogen. For many grasses, a good starting point for the amount of nitrogen to apply is about 3 g N m-2 month-1, during the seasons when the weather is conducive to vigorous grass growth. The exact amount of nitrogen to apply can be adjusted based on the turfgrass performance. For more information about this, see this article I wrote for Golf Course Seminar (in Japanese, 日本語) or this article from the Hawaii GCSA newsletter.
4. Mow with a plan. After choosing the right grass and applying the right fertilizer, there is no way to get the desired quality without mowing properly. That means using mowers with sharpened blades, set at the proper mowing height, and operated at the optimum mowing frequency for a particular area. And as long as the mowers are going to be sent out to mow the grass, why not mow an attractive pattern into the grass? This may be a type of stripe or checkerboard or even no stripes at all, but it takes a plan to achieve the desired appearance after mowing. Get the mowing right and the grass conditions will almost certainly improve.
5. Keep the grass as dry as possible. Or perhaps more accurately, keep the soil as dry as possible. How is that going to improve turfgrass conditions? If the soil is kept dry, there will be more air space in the soil. When the water content of the soil is high, there is not much space for air. Grass roots grow better when there is plenty of air space in the soil, and if you can establish a healthy root system, the playing surfaces will be more stress tolerant and the grass plants will be more healthy. To really manage the soil moisture, I find it is extremely useful to use a soil moisture meter such as the Hydrosense from Campbell Scientific, the Theta-Probe from Delta-T Devices, or the TDR Meters from Spectrum Technologies. For most turfgrass sites, I like to maintain the soil moisture at more than 10% (by volume) and less than 25%. You can find the optimum range for your site, and by using one of these meters, you can monitor the soils as they dry, only applying water when the soil reaches the critical point when the grass will begin to wilt. I wrote about soil water management extensively in this article for Golf Course Seminar (in Japanese, 日本語) and in Irrigation for Bentgrass Greens: Theory and Practice (for the Kanto Golf Association and also in Japanese, 日本語). If you are interested to know more about this, please send me an e-mail inquiry or leave a comment here.